Web site accessibility goes mainstream
By Carolyn Duffy Marsan
(IDG) -- A federal government initiative aimed at making Web sites accessible to people with disabilities is raising awareness of accessibility issues among corporate Web developers and spawning software that helps fix accessibility problems.
The government's so-called Section 508 goes into effect on June 21, leaving federal agencies, IT vendors and government contractors scrambling to comply with the stringent new rules.
While the new version of Section 508 was written for federal agencies, it is having broad impact on companies that sell IT systems to the federal government.
Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires the federal government to buy and develop information systems that are accessible to people with disabilities.
In 1998, President Clinton added teeth to the Section 508 guidelines by creating enforceable standards for accessibility and incorporating them into the federal acquisition regulations.
"When the government says you need to build technology a certain way, for vendors like ourselves that's a very compelling maxim," says Christy Hubbard, product marketing manager for Adobe's ePaper Solutions Group. "We need to build products that can be sold to the government. It's not very practical for us to build multiple versions of our products."
Section 508 applies to all IT systems purchased by the federal government, including PCs, software and office equipment such as copiers and fax machines. Much of the angst over the new rules surrounds the requirement to make federal Web sites accessible to people with disabilities.
"The most difficult problem with 508 is Web sites," says Bill Sahlberg, an accessibility consultant at JetForm.
"Federal agencies have already built these sites. There's a huge amount of information in them. . . . In the blink of an eye, they have to convert everything to work with assistive technology like screen readers," he adds.
Federal agencies and their contractors need to ensure that their Web sites are easy to navigate with devices ranging from screen readers to head-mounted devices that track eye movement. They need to provide accurate text descriptions of graphic and sound elements.
They need to provide accessible hooks into drop-down menus and online forms. And they need to make sure color doesn't convey meaning as in a stop sign image or bar chart.
These challenges have spawned a new class of Web development tools. In the past two months, several vendors, including JetForm, Adobe and Macromedia, have started shipping Section 508-related products.
These tools range in price from free for Macromedia's Dreamweaver 4 accessibility extension to more than $2,600 for SSB Technologies' InFocus software that fixes common accessibility problems.
"Eighteen months ago, the only tool out there was Bobby, a free software package with very limited capabilities," says Marco Sorani, president of SSB Technologies. "We've come a long way since Bobby."
Several of the new tools crawl through Web pages to find common accessibility problems and offer advice about fixing them. Other tools help developers create templates that generate accessible pages and forms. Still others provide regular reports on Web site accessibility that can be used as an audit trail in litigation.
Interest in these tools is high. Macromedia says more than 8,000 people downloaded its new Section 508 extension in the first two weeks of availability in May. Federal agencies, IT suppliers and educational institutions have expressed the most interest, says Pat Brogan, vice president of solutions at Macromedia.
"People feel like their Web sites must be compliant," Brogan says. "They're wondering what the enforcement is going to be like and what the penalties will be. People are taking this very seriously."
Indeed, it's mainly fear of Section 508-related lawsuits that is driving companies to get serious about accessibility.
Among the IT vendors that are ramping up their accessibility efforts in light of Section 508 are Adobe, Macromedia, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Booz Allen & Hamilton.
"508 was the wake-up call for many high-tech companies to take accessibility seriously," says Mike Paciello, founder of WebABLE, an accessibility consultancy, and author of a book on Web site accessibility. Paciello says only a handful of companies, including IBM, Microsoft and Apple, focused on accessibility prior to the federal government's mandate.
"Corporations realized there was too much at stake by not being able to do business with the feds," Paciello says. "They realized they needed to do what was necessary to comply."
Companies that get serious about Web site accessibility find it to be a time-consuming and iterative process. Even with the new automated tools, Web developers will spend a couple of hours per page diagnosing and fixing accessibility problems. Static Web pages are easier to fix than dynamically generated Web pages, and pages built from templates are easier than those without templates.
"If you've got a company or a government agency with 1,000 templates, it'll take three to six months to retrofit that site," Sorani says.
Most companies are addressing accessibility issues as part of an overall redesign effort for their Web sites. The process involves defining accessibility standards for all Web pages. Then content contributors need to be trained in the new standards. Testing for accessibility becomes part of the development process, like spell checking or load testing.
That's the case at Compaq, which began a Web site redesign effort last fall that includes a top-to-bottom review for accessibility.
Compaq's Web development team established accessibility guidelines that met the Section 508 rules. Those guidelines were published in May to several hundred people who design Web pages or publish content to Compaq's site. Now the team is adding accessibility to its regular training.
"If anybody touches a page, they touch it for accessibility," says Robert Folk, manager of editorial and content operations for Compaq.com.
Compaq's Web developers use two automated tools: Bobby and Macromedia's Dreamweaver 4 extension. They also use screen readers and speech browsers to test pages.
"If we can make the site more usable for people with assistive technology, we can make it more usable for everybody," Folk says. For example, the new Compaq.com home page will have 20 links instead of 50 links when it launches in June.
"There's no end date here," Folk says.
"We will continue to make our site more accessible and usable," he adds.
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